Where to start with fantasy overlord Michael Moorcock

Where to start with fantasy overlord Michael Moorcock

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Michael Moorcock

Why it’s daunting: Some authors have recurring characters and ongoing series that they’re known for, and usually that’s a hook. But in the case of Michael Moorcock, his sprawl is staggering. Over the past 50 years, the British writer has amassed a catalogue of dozens upon dozens of novels, many of them originally published by small presses and subject to countless, confusing reissues and anthologies. Since most of his output falls under the genre of fantasy—rounded out by smaller percentages of science fiction, nonfiction, and literary work—it’s suffered many of the ups and downs of that industry, which was once far more fan-driven and mercurial. 

Nothing’s more mercurial, though, than Moorcock’s crowning achievement: The Eternal Champion. The name applies to many things: a meta-series that encompasses many of Moorcock’s novel sequences; a conceptual motif that ties into Moorcock’s other great invention, the much-copied Multiverse; and lastly, an actual character. The Eternal Champion isn’t a single person; he’s a shifting, living archetype that transcends time and space, one who manifests himself in an infinite number of incarnations—the most famous being Elric, a doom-shrouded, albino warrior-prince whose liquid morality renders him one of fantasy’s most nuanced and intriguing figures.

The complexity of Moorcock’s worlds—and his vast catalog, which mostly remains in a state of disrepair—makes approaching his work a formidable task. It doesn’t help that his reputation seems quite monolithic, as does his writing; while the editor of the groundbreaking magazine New Worlds, Moorcock was an architect of science fiction’s game-changing New Wave in the ’60s and ’70s. Since then he’s influenced everyone from Alan Moore to Neil Gaiman to Michael Chabon. Moorcock is rarely spoken of in a tone other than abject awe, and that cult-like aura can be off-putting to a newcomer. That said, getting lost in Moorcock’s work is one of its many joys; rather than being a puzzle to solve, it’s a fractal enigma that only grows more deliriously mysterious the closer it’s examined.

Possible gateway: Elric Of Melniboné 

Why: Just as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings was solidifying its position at the top of the fantasy canon in the ’60s, along came Elric. The chalk-skinned, red-eyed antihero flew in the face of the noble, heroic tradition; at times cruel, impotent, morally ambiguous, and morbidly narcissistic, the dispossessed prince of the lost island of Melniboné—whose people descended from dragons rather than apes—wanders the Multiverse in search of redemption. He encounters many companions along the way, but his constant ally, and enemy, is his sword. Dubbed Stormbringer, the god-haunted blade siphons the souls of those it kills; that god, Arioch, Lord of Chaos and Duke of Hell, then feeds Elric enough residual energy to keep his frail body alive.

Elric’s tragic, amorphous weirdness couldn’t have come at a better time, as the cultural upheaval of the ’60s practically demanded an avatar like Elric. Accordingly, the character was embraced by the counterculture; bands such as Hawkwind and Blue Öyster Cult collaborated with Moorcock on Elric-themed music in the ’70s, and countless bands have since based songs or whole albums on him. Traces of Elric’s sensibility also popped up in everything from Dungeons & Dragons to Doctor Who. The ubiquity and influence of Elric belies one of the series’ most intimidating aspects: its odd relationship with time. Moorcock has written his Elric books without a strict chronological sequence, which can be maddening to those who are used to more conventional, easier-to-follow fantasy series. But that contorted timeline is one of Elric’s most beguiling aspects, and it adds to the dreamlike, otherworldly (make that multi-worldly) nature of the character and his milieu. 

Still, it’s not difficult to slip into Elric circa 2012. Much in the way that Del Rey has honored and done justice to the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, the publisher has given Moorcock’s Elric series the deluxe, multi-volume reissue treatment. Starting in 2008 with the first of six volumes, The Stealer Of Souls, the series—known as The Chronicles Of The Last Emperor Of Melniboné—gathers all the Elric novels, novellas, and short stories that have appeared over the past 50 years, including lots of extras: scripts, artwork, essays, and Moorcock’s own commentary on his most beloved and enduring creation. To date, it’s the definitive collection of Elric literature and lore—not to mention the easiest to access. Just don’t expect the gritty realism of Game Of Thrones; like its hero, the Elric series is deeply introspective, impressionistic, and metaphysical.

Next steps: Even more metaphysical than Elric are the two trilogies starring Corum Jhaelen Irsei: The Swords Trilogy and its sequel, The Chronicles Of Corum. Moody and ethereal, Corum is a facet of The Eternal Champion whose decadent existence as a demigod is shattered by two encroaching forces: mankind from below and assorted deities from above. In particular, the Lost Lords known as Kwll and Rhynn bequeath Corum a hand and an eye, respectively, after he loses one of each at the hands of insurgent humans. These epic struggles play themselves out in the form of formulaic, episodic fantasy quests—but as Moorcock breaks out the wide lens, the backdrop becomes almost psychedelically dazzling. He also repeats the use of certain symbols—such as the crystalline Eye Of Rhynn, which echoes the eye of Arioch on Elric’s sword, Stormbringer. Beneath all the trippiness, though, Moorcock explores very real philosophical issues concerning the nature of perception, race, and civilization—all couched in gripping adventure, not to mention some alternately gorgeous and grotesque prose.

The other major facet of Moorcock’s The Eternal Champion is far less imposing. Dorian Hawkmoon, the subject of the four-book series The History Of The Runestaff, isn’t an antihero at all; unlike his fellow incarnations Elric and Corum, Hawkmoon practically oozes nobility, decency, and strength. More than that, though, he’s a consistent character, one whose occasional bouts of moral doubt never get in the way of a good, blood-pumping swordfight. There’s still plenty of depth to the Runestaff series, but overall it’s brisk, straightforward, and fun. And the setting is recognizable and relatively tangible: a post-apocalyptic Europe that’s reverted to a state of pseudo-feudal chivalry, which also makes Hawkmoon’s world the halfway point between our world and the more abstract, fanciful realms of Moorcock’s imagination.

Where not to start: While there are many pockets of wonder hiding among Moorcock’s lesser series, they’re not as consistently rewarding—partly because most of the lesser series are more loosely constructed and connected than Elric. The magical alternate-history of the Von Bek series culminates in the stunning The City In The Autumn Stars, but it’s not really necessary to read the preceding, and relatively mundane, installments to enjoy City. The same can be said of the Sailing To Utopia cycle—which exists on the fringes of The Eternal Champion mythos—or the proto-steampunk of the trilogy A Nomad Of The Time Stream.

The most tempting, yet frustrating, of Moorcock’s major creations is Jerry Cornelius. Originally conceived as a 20th-century iteration of The Eternal Champion (and one with striking similarities to Elric), these books became a vessel of Moorcock’s gonzo postmodernism throughout the ’70s and beyond. There’s much to marvel at in Jerry Cornelius, but little to authentically enjoy; much of the pulpy pastiche and pop-culture references are outdated, and the jumpy, experimental nature of the text is not the place for Moorcock initiates to start. Likewise, Moorcock’s many standalone novels—including great works like Gloriana, an erotic alt-history saga, or Mother London, a rumination on modernity that draws from James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon—aren’t the best entry points.

Elric has never made it to the big screen, although a handful of aborted productions have popped up over the years. In comics, though, the character (as well as Corum and Hawkmoon) has been translated many times, including faithful renderings by the likes of P. Craig Russell and Walt Simonson. The many musical interpretations of The Eternal Champion can be just as intriguing—but even the best-known examples (like Blue Öyster Cult’s “Veteran Of The Psychic Wars,” featured on the Heavy Metal soundtrack and with lyrics by Moorcock himself) can’t substitute for the richness of the source material. Those who want to meet Elric, or any of Moorcock’s multifaceted, mythically resonant antiheroes, are best served by the novels themselves.

More Gateways To Geekery